Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) are often perceived as dangerous due to the physical nature of these combat sports. The goal in these sports is to defeat the opponent, which often involves striking and grappling techniques, both standing and on the ground.
MMA is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world, and while some believe it is excessively dangerous, it’s important to note that the frequency of exposure to serious injuries is relatively low. In fact, despite the bloody, head-to-toe violence of MMA, a study finds that it’s actually safer than boxing. While MMA fighters are more likely to experience minor but visible injuries like bruises or contusions, they are less likely to receive injuries that matter long-term in one’s health; things like concussions, head trauma, unconsciousness, eye and facial injuries, and broken bones.
However, it’s undeniable that MMA and UFC are combat sports where the two participants are actively trying to hurt each other. According to studies, MMA has a higher injury rate when it comes to all groups of injuries than other combat sports. But on the flip side, training in MMA and even competing as an amateur is not as dangerous.
Inherent risks in MMA/UFC fights
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fights are inherently violent and pose a risk of injury to the fighters. According to a study published in 2021, 57% of the 503 MMA bouts included in the study involved an injury, and fighters sustained a total of 401 unique injuries. Professional bouts had a significantly higher injury rate than amateur bouts, and losers of MMA bouts experienced a significantly higher injury rate than winners. The prevalence of specific injury types varied by competition level, match result, and match winners versus losers.
MMA fighters are at risk of sustaining injuries such as dyspnea, fractures, and concussions1. Research has shown that MMA may not necessarily be safer than boxing, and an MMA fighter who fights frequently might be at greater risk than a careful boxer
The most common injuries include:
- Fractures (broken nose, orbital bone, or jaw)
- Facial abrasions
- Deep cuts
- Wrist or hand trauma
- Knee injuries
Deaths in UFC
There have been no reported deaths in the UFC, the largest MMA promotion in the world since its inception in 1993.
This is a testament to how seriously the UFC takes fighter safety, and how the rules and regulations have massively helped move the sport forward
Deaths in Other MMA Organizations
However, there have been cases of MMA fighters dying in sanctioned fights outside of the UFC. As of 2023, there have been seventeen recorded deaths resulting from sanctioned mixed martial arts contests and nine from unregulated bouts. Some of the most notable cases include:
- Sam Vasquez: A 35-year-old fighter who participated in a Renegades Extreme Fighting event. He was knocked out by his opponent and later died due to blunt force trauma.
- Michael Kirkham: A fighter who died in a Dash Entertainment/King MMA event.
- Tyrone Mims: A fighter who died in a Conflict MMA Fight Night event.
- Booto Guylain: A fighter who died soon after a technical knockout loss in an EFC AFRICA 27 event.
- Donshay White: A fighter who died in a Hardrock MMA 90 event.
- Rondel Clark: A fighter who died in a Cage Titans XXXV event.
- Mateus Fernandes: A Brazilian amateur talent who died after suffering seizures in the cage and allegedly four heart attacks at the hospital.
Deaths in Sanctioned MMA Fights
Sanctioned MMA fights are officially recognized bouts that are regulated by a sports authority or commission. These fights follow strict rules and regulations, including weight classes, banned moves, and safety measures.
For instance, Sam Vasquez was the first fighter to die from injuries sustained in a sanctioned MMA competition in North America. He collapsed after taking a punch to the chin during a fight on October 20, 2007. He was diagnosed with a subdural hemorrhage and slipped into a coma for 48 hours until his death on November 30.
Deaths in Unsanctioned MMA Fights
Unsanctioned MMA fights are not regulated by a sports authority or commission. These fights may not adhere to the safety measures and rules that are typically enforced in sanctioned fights. As of 2023, there have been nine recorded deaths from unregulated bouts.
One such case is Douglas Dedge, who died on March 18, 1998, due to a traumatic brain injury sustained during an unsanctioned fight. Another case is Alfredo Castro Herrera, who died on April 14, 1981, from an unknown cause during an unsanctioned fight.
The Dark Side of MMA
Behind the bright lights and glory of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) lies a much darker side that often goes unnoticed by the public.
Physical and Mental Toll
The physical and mental toll that fighters endure is one of the major issues that plague MMA. Fighters are subjected to a variety of strikes to the head, such as punches and kicks, which can lead to traumatic brain injuries. Other potential fatal injuries include pulmonary edema, subdural hematoma, and cervical spine injury.
There are also ethical concerns surrounding the sport. For instance, it’s been well-documented that MMA managers and gyms take a healthy percentage from their fighters’ pay, often neglecting their health.
Long-term Health Effects
Long-term health effects are another dark aspect of MMA. Frequent fights and blows can take a toll on a fighter’s health, leading to degenerative diseases. For example, the tragic story of Gary Goodrich highlights the toll that frequent fights can take on a fighter’s health, leading to degenerative dementia disease.
Despite these challenges, many fighters continue to participate in the sport due to their passion and dedication. However, it’s crucial for the MMA community and regulatory bodies to continually work on improving safety measures and providing support for fighters to mitigate these risks.
MMA is perceived as dangerous and is even illegal or restricted in some countries
MMA’s legality varies from country to country. In some countries, MMA is legal and regulated, while in others, it is either illegal or only partially regulated.
- Illegal: In countries like North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Libya, and Sudan, MMA is completely banned. The bans are often motivated by cultural and political reasons.
- Restricted: In countries like France, Italy, China, and India, MMA is restricted in some way. These restrictions can include licensing requirements, specific safety regulations, and limitations on certain aspects of the sport.
- Legal but not Recognized: Some countries like Belgium and Denmark don’t prohibit MMA but don’t endorse or recognize it as a sport.
The perception of MMA as dangerous and its legality in different countries is influenced by a variety of factors, including cultural and religious beliefs, safety concerns, and the potential for serious injury.
Safety Measures in MMA/UFC Fights
Despite the inherent risks, the UFC and other MMA organizations have implemented several safety measures to protect fighters:
- Adoption of the Unified Rules of MMA: The UFC played a significant role in creating and adopting the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts around 2000/01. These rules banned several dangerous techniques that posed significant risks to fighters. Along with the rules, the use of protective gear like mouthguards, groin protectors, and MMA gloves became mandatory.
- Comprehensive Medical Examinations and Licensing Standards: Fighters must undergo extensive medical examinations, including ophthalmological tests, sports physicals, and MRIs of the brain, to assess their fitness before and after fights. Obtaining an MMA license demands meeting rigorous medical standards.
- Stringent Fight Stoppage Guidelines: The UFC has strict guidelines for when a fight should be stopped, which helps prevent unnecessary harm to fighters.
- Compulsory Medical Suspensions: After a fight, fighters are often given mandatory medical suspensions to ensure they have adequate time to recover.
- Investment in Brain Health Research: The UFC invests in research to better understand and prevent brain injuries.
- Regular Drug Testing and Anti-Doping Policy: The UFC has a strict anti-doping policy and conducts regular drug tests to ensure fair competition.
These measures significantly increase the safety of MMA competitions, reducing the risk of serious injuries and ensuring a level playing field for all competitors.
In conclusion, while there have been no reported deaths inside the UFC, the largest MMA promotion in the world, there have been cases of fighters dying in sanctioned and unsanctioned MMA fights outside of the UFC. As of 2023, there have been seventeen recorded deaths resulting from sanctioned mixed martial arts contests and nine from unregulated bouts. The inherent risks associated with MMA, such as severe injuries and fatalities, have led to its illegal or restricted status in some countries. Despite the risks, MMA continues to be a popular and growing sport, with safety measures and regulations in place to minimize the risk of fatalities and injuries